Gemma Woods is only a handful of appearances short of the Hawkes Bay record for most games played.
On Saturday she played her 70th, against Canterbury in the fifth round of the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC).
Her close mate Chanel Atkins represented the Tui 75 times between 2001 and 2019.
“I don’t think Chanel is too worried about her record being passed. She should come back. We played together at Napier Tech this year and won a title,” Woods laughed.
In the game against Canterbury, Hawkes Bay was a long way from winning but Woods was wisely philosophical.
“New week, new goal,” she says. “Canterbury was a classy team. Chatting with them after the game that’s what some of them do as a job – rugby players. We take the lesson and move on.”
Canterbury fielded nine contracted Black Ferns. They have a full-time coach, Jimmy Sinclair, who works closely with Matatū rugby director and Black Ferns World Cup-winning assistant coach Whitney Hansen.
By contrast, Hawkes Bay have five teams in their senior club competition. They played a single round that concluded in May. Coach Sione Cherrington-Kite is a primary school teacher at Te Kura o Kimi Ora. Eight players are a part of the Hawke’s Bay Academy with regular access to union gym facilities. Others are only welcome if they ‘buy into the programme.’ Because of work commitments that’s often not possible so they train elsewhere. Some players were even asked to leave when trying to do voluntary extras. Hawkes Bay does have a union-employed personal trainer who assists the Tui.
Woods refuses to complain. She will fight on. That’s what she does, sometimes literally.
In 2014 she was banned for 10 weeks for assaulting a spectator after she had been red-carded in a club match.
“This woman came up to me on the sideline with an umbrella. She got smart and the umbrella was poised to attack so I started swinging. It wasn’t the first time I’d done actions before words. I’m not proud of it. I had to get wiser,” Woods admitted.
She took up boxing. Under the tutelage of Rod Langdon at the Napier Boxing Club she won a Golden Gloves welterweight title in Taupō. Her rugby, while still aggressive, became more nuanced.
“I decided it wasn’t worth being stood down and boxing has helped that with its emphasis on discipline. I see the young ones coming through and I enjoy being a role model for them. I tell them not to do what I did,” she said.
There have been plenty of proud moments in the black and white hoops for Woods. Her best is typically reserved for occasions where she has faced adversity.
In 2017, her Napier Ross Shield teammate and ISO Limited (Napier Port logistics) workmate Leslie Laing tragically died after a work accident in Auckland. Woods wanted to attend the funeral but couldn’t. Hawkes Bay was playing Otago at Park Island, so she decided to wear a black arm band in his memory and dedicated the game to Les. Woods scored two tries in a 39-17 victory.
(Notably, former Black Ferns first-five Amy Williams shone with her tactical kicking and options and future World Cup winner Renee Holmes at second five proved she is a player with enormous potential. The mother-and-daughter combo of Julie Ferguson-Ngawaka and Teilah Ferguson appeared together for the first time in a first class fixture.)
A longtime halfback, Woods shifted into the loose forwards when Emma Jensen (49 Tests for the Black Ferns) returned home in 2018. A year later, Woods celebrated her 50th match and Atkins played her 70th, in a 64-31 win over Northland.
“My grandfather Noel Merryman presented me with my blazer after that game. It was touch-and-go as to if that would happen. Pop had been diagnosed with cancer and died a short time later. My grandparents did everything for me from buying boots to driving me to games,” Woods said.
Hawkes Bay was drastically short of props last year, so Woods said, “I’ll do it.” With no prior experience in the loosehead position, she helped Hawke’s Bay win four consecutive matches and capture the championship. In the final against unbeaten Otago in Balclutha she was even credited with the winning try.
“I wish,” Woods laughed. “It was Jessica Bennett who scored that. We drove over together.
“Winning that championship was probably the highlight of my career. I still wanted to be involved and if that meant changing, so be it.
“My priorities as a prop were to win our own ball and don’t get injured.”
Hawkes Bay have so far punched above their weight in the Premiership in 2023. In the opening round they beat Auckland 32-31, their first victory against the Storm since 2006. After stretching unbeaten Waikato to the brink, the Tui toppled Wellington 33-22 in the capital. Centre Teilah Ferguson scored three tries and former Black Ferns first five and captain Krysten Cottrell played a blinder.
Woods tenure as a prop was only meant to be temporary. With greater depth in the position, she’s switched back to flanker in 2023. She only became a loose forward because she got “too big” she laughed.
“I was always a halfback growing up. I love the dynamic nature of that position and I had a mouth that suited. Flanker keeps me in the game. It suits my aggression but I don’t have to be at every ruck to pass.”
She’s looking past last weekend’s loss. “Despite Saturday, the girls are hissing. We’ve got Moomooga Palu back from down South. She’s fitter and stronger and kills people in the scrum. Teilah Ferguson is back from Wellington, Krysten Cottrell has been outstanding. A couple of the young girls are exceptional. I think the Black Ferns are looking at Kahlia Awa. We’re a resilient group with a strong connection,” Woods said.
If Hawkes Bay beats Bay of Plenty at Rugby Park, Whakatane, on Sunday they’ll be within a whisker of reaching the semifinals for the first time since 2009.
Woods was in that 2009 team. In fact, she had to be reminded that her debut for Hawke’s Bay was in 2005, aged 17. Rosita Vai was New Zealand Idol that year.
Woods’ introduction to senior rugby was with Spotswood United, aged 13, an experience she described as “bloody terrifying.” Chanel Atkins was 20 then and “everybody knew who she was.”
Woods works for Oranga Tamariki in care and protection. It’s not easy work but she enjoys giving back to, and sharing knowledge with, those “less fortunate.”
Note: Hawke’s Bay was unable to field an FPC team in 2013 and 2016,